Jimmy and Will Rodgers Save Thousands from Starvation

The Story of Will and Jimmie Rodgers and the American Red Cross

   This is a true story about one of the lesser known events of the great depression, a tour by Will Rogers and Jimmie Rodgers in 1931 that saved thousands from starvation. Few Americans today know about the tour; fewer still understand its impact. The efforts of Will and Jimmie not only saved untold millions of Americans from the horror of famine that year, but also paved the way for the growth and maturation of the American Red Cross. The tour’s effects reverberate today, through such events as Farm Aid and the ongoing work of the American Red Cross.

   Fundamentally, Distant Son underscores the substance of being an American the very quality that impels relatively ordinary people to alter the course of a dreadful situation. Neither Will Rogers nor Jimmie Rodgers finished high school. They were not elected officials, not policy-makers, not economists. Yet – through what they saw and knew personally – they accepted and acted upon an unpleasant reality that men of greater education and influence disregarded. By selflessly volunteering their services, the two entertainers gave new hope to people who were starving. They provided an unknowable number of Americans with a reason to keep going, a sense that circumstances would eventually change for the better. Today, Will and Jimmie continue to inspire us with the notion that in time of a genuine crisis, figures will arise who have the courage to recognize the truth of a situation-and the willingness to act accordingly and virtuously.

Historical  Forces of the Depression and Southern Strife in America

   President Herbert Hoover personally directed rescue efforts after the Great Flood of 1927  known as the “yellow tide” that saved 1 million people along 1,000 miles of the Mississippi River Delta.

   Great Depression (1929-1941) The largest single economic and social calamity to strike the world up to that date. The United States suffered first and for the longest period of time. During its first year, over ten percent of the total American population lost its economic livelihood, about 14 million people, evenly divided between rural and urban areas. However, the vast majority of the affected rural population resided in the Deep South. Ensuing years would see even greater increases in unemployment, the complete devastation of the dollar’s purchasing power and a catastrophic decline in the the commercial value of American consumer goods.

   The Great Drought (1930-1931) The largest single environmental calamity to strike the United States up to that date. 30 states suffered record high temperatures with no rainfall for approximately 18 months. The Mississippi River became a trickle. The relentless heat devastated agriculture, livestock and wildlife resources. In certain affected areas, a gallon of water came to cost the same as a gallon of gasoline.

“Judge” John Barton Payne (1855-1935) A lawyer and President Woodrow Wilson’s final secretary of the interior, Payne revitalized the American Red Cross after a particularly difficult period following World War I. As Chairman, he and Hoover personally co-operated in responding to the Great Flood of 1927. Yet, Payne feared the mission that Hoover gave the agency to save the South from famine in 1930-31 would overwhelm its resources and condemn it to extinction.

   The Southern Farmer Black or white, sharecropper or freeholder was relentlessly assailed by natural and manufactured calamities in the years following World War I. Overproduction, recapitalization, the “one-crop” policy, rampant land speculation, deliberately poor education and health services, waves of pestilence and floods-all these defined the years before the Great Depression and Great Drought, their effects amplified by the economically crippling Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act of 1930.

   Governor Harvey Parnell (1880-1936) A career politician and former lieutenant governor of Arkansas, the Democrat Parnell shared Hoover’s challenge in taking office at the onset of the Great Depression and Great Drought.

   Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933) Known as “the Singing Brakeman,” “America’s Blue Yodeler” and “the Father of Country Music,” Rodgers enjoyed a tumultuous six-year career as a professional singer, guitarist and songwriter. Within one year of going professional in 1927, he became the best-selling and most popular non-classical performer in the nation. Born in Meridian, Mississippi, Rodgers adopted Texas as his home during his public years, residing in Kerrville and San Antonio.

   Will Rogers (1879-1935) A friend to both cowboy and king, Rogers – “America’s Ambassador of Wit” – enjoyed life as a leading star of Broadway, Hollywood, radio and journalism also serving as the first honorary mayor of Beverly Hills. At the same time, the sagacious humorist, philanthropist and champion of American values relentlessly challenged the political, financial and media establishment. The “Cowboy Philosopher” died with his one-eyed friend and pilot, Wiley Post (1898-1935) – the first aviator to fly solo around the world – at Point Barrow, Alaska in 1935.

The Story of the Times

   President Hoover dramatically changed his attitude toward domestic crisis management after assuming the presidency in 1929. Whereas earlier he had demonstrated an almost super-human devotion to saving those in dire need, he reacted to the Great Depression and Great Drought by insisting that local authorities or the American Red Cross handle all relief efforts. His chief job as president, he believed, was to maintain “confidence” in America and her social and financial institutions. To acknowledge any emergency would be to jeopardize that “confidence.”  Privately and publicly though by 1930,  Hoover refused to admit that anything had altered the previous years’ status quo of “can-do” prosperity. Despite receiving constant entreaties for aid from Congress and the affected states, the President maintained his position, buttressing the Republican, media and general “establishment” opinion that the calamities assaulting the nation represented acceptable market “corrections” arising in part from the innate indolence of the lower classes. Hoover had always remained consistent in his attitudes. For example, beginning with his World War I-era international famine relief work, he viewed the political and commercial objectives of the American farmer with distrust, as he considered agriculture to be one more threatening special interest. Hoover also excoriated what he labeled Southern “peonage” and vowed to engage in no action that would support it.

   By the summer of 1930, famine and disease threatened the South. Unlike other areas of the nation, Southern farming depended entirely on the ruinous “one crop” system. The nation’s World War I cotton needs, land speculation and bank pressure encouraged and perpetuated this policy. After the collapse of the world cotton market in the early 1920s, this policy was never abandoned or altered. Thus, the Great Drought and Great Depression not only eradicated the South’s agrarian economic base, but also left the Southern farmer without the means to plant basic food crops after the rains returned.

   In the autumn of 1930, President Hoover asked “Judge” John Barton Payne and the American Red Cross to alleviate the food crisis in the South. Judge Payne feared the mission would destroy the agency. The American Red Cross depended solely on public support. The Great Depression had already reduced donations. Nevertheless, the agency resolved to do the best it could with the limited resources available.

  A Hungry Nation Speaks

   On 31 December 1930, the Lonoke County, Arkansas, Red Cross office ran out of  “supply blanks” – the requisition forms redeemable at local food merchants were required for the bi-weekly distribution of rations. The towns of Peltus, Indian Bayou, Gundwood and Lafayette were particularly affected.

   On the morning of  January 3rd, 1931, around 45 farmers from the above communities traveled together to the larger town of England, demanding food. As news of their arrival spread, about 500 local residents materialized, voicing its support. Miserable and hungry, the crowd fed upon its anger and frustration, ultimately “marching” upon its own town.   The action resulted in no violence or looting. What’s more, order was quickly restored when the St. Louis office of the Red Cross authorized an emergency $1,500 payment to cover the cost of distributing rations to the crowd. When the hungry farmers learned of the payment, they formed a line, waited quietly and dispersed after receiving their food.

   The England Food Riot occurred in January of 1931. Citizens of England, Arkansas were starving and not able to receive food for their families. The  merchants at the local stores had run out of government vouchers and were not sure  whether or not they would receive payment for food. The citizens formed a mob and stormed  the stores, claiming the stores could either give them the food or they would take it  by force. Merchants handed out the food and were later paid back by the government.  The England Food Riot became a national event and epitomized the needs of the poor  during the Depression.

* January 4th, 1931- The Arkansas Democrat reported that approximately 100 men had made a “demand for food” in England, but that public order had been maintained.

* January 5th 1931 – the national news media reported this event as the “England Rebellion,” or as a “food riot,” asserting that the crowd had been armed with shotguns and had prepared to use violence. The Baltimore Sun contacted Governor Harvey Parnell directly, requesting an explanation. That same day, the Arkansas Democrat published Parnell’s telegram response to the Sun, in which he assured the paper that nothing at all was wrong in the state. Parnell sought to suppress news of the “rebellion” as well as other aspects of the dreadful conditions in the state in order to avoid “embarrassment.”

*January 7th,  1931- Republican Congressional leadership, specifically Hamilton Fish of New York, began accusing the Communist Party of fomenting the trouble on the direct orders of Moscow. Conveniently enough, the leadership of the American Communist Party (CPUSA) eventually did claim credit.

   Several relief plans were proposed in Congress throughout the winter of 1931. All ultimately failed. Arkansas Senators Joseph T. “Greasy Joe” Robinson-the Senate majority leader-and Thaddeus H. Caraway each proposed two relief measures immediately. For example, Robinson crafted the $25 million dollar Deficiency Appropriation, passed by the Senate but defeated by the House in January.

       Rodgers Rescue

January 15th, 1931 – Will Rogers met personally with President Hoover, imploring him to address the crisis by providing relief to those in need. Hoover refused, citing the fear of establishing a precedent for public dependency on the Federal government.

*January 22-24, 1931-  Rogers personally tour England, Pine Bluff and other affected Arkansas towns. Rogers gave a radio address from Little Rock, announcing he would sponsor and headline a three-week relief tour. All box office proceeds would be donated to the American Red Cross. This initial appeal generated $1,670,952 in donations.

January 23, 1931- From Washington,  1931, President Hoover lead a Red Cross radio appeal, in a broadcast featuring former New York governor and Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith, former President Calvin Coolidge, actress Mary Pickford and, from Arkansas, Will Rogers.  After this broadcast, Jimmie Rodgers, dying inexorably of tuberculosis in Kerrville, Texas, volunteered his services to Will Rogers, via telegram.

* January 25, 1931 – The American Red Cross relief tour featuring Will Rogers and Jimmie Rodgers performed 50 shows in 18 days across Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, starting on  in San Antonio, Texas. The tour grossed over $250,000 – an astronomical box office for the time. Assistant secretary of the Navy for aviation David Sinton Ingalls provided Rogers with the use of a Navy Curtis “Hell-Diver” aircraft – named Mystery Ship – piloted by internationally famous aviator Frank Hawks, who also performed monologues and rope tricks as an act on the tour.  Rogers gave all box office receipts to the Red Cross with the stipulation that half be used for urban relief and half for rural, with a special grant made to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. The tour with Will Rogers assorted national radio pleas, ultimately saw $3 million dollars raised for the American Red Cross. These donations checked the growth of an already catastrophic situation. For example, the agency fed 150,000 people per week in Arkansas in January 1931. By the end of February, that number had increased to 500,000 per day.

   More Thoughts on Jimmie Rodgers

   Jimmie Rodgers exemplifies the class of Americans who suffered the most during the 1920s, the Great Depression and the Great Drought. Had Jimmie Rodgers not become “Jimmie Rodgers,” he just as easily could have been dying in obscurity from malnutrition, the relentless grind of poverty or any number of the diseases harrowing the South in the Great Drought’s wake. In the way that F. Scott Fitzgerald exemplifies the educated, rich, young and disaffected American hedonist of that era, Rodgers-both in his life and in the trans-historical art of his songs-stands for an entire generation of Southerners.

   It remains powerful and humbling to listen to the oeuvre of this apolitical man, who basically sang about what he knew from working on the railroads. When squared against historical events, many of his songs feature an eerie prescience. The tramps and good-men-gone-bad he sings about in 1929 have, by 1931, become a wide strata of the nation’s population. Due to the particular circumstances of both his health and the manner in which the Victor Talking Machine Company recorded him, Jimmie Rodgers had to excuse himself from the American Red Cross famine relief tour for a few days in January 1931 in order to cut three songs at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio. This session yielded “T.B. Blues,” an epitaph and eulogy both for Rodgers, and for his generation of Southerner. Lyrically, “Great Drought” or “Great Depression” could have been substituted effortlessly for “T.B.” Rodgers – in contrast to Woody Guthrie, for example – recorded it because he needed a song, as opposed to needing to make a direct statement. This exemplifies one of Rodgers’s many talents creating a work of art so telling that its power and truth only becomes noticeable years – if not decades – after its creation.


2 thoughts on “Documentaries

  1. Thanks for the history lesson, Mr. Henderson. I never realized that the great flood, the depression, and the dust bowl days all occurred in such close proximity. That was definitely a time of great tribulation for my ancestors, and helps explain many of their attitudes and conditions that I observed later.

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